GPS coming to most local police, fire vehicles

EVERETT — By the end of the year, most police and fire vehicles in Snohomish County could be equipped with GPS technology that will allow emergency dispatchers to know where they are at a moment’s notice.

The technology promises faster and safer emergency operations. It also brings up touchy legal questions about the data’s potential effect on discipline investigations and public records requests.

It’s all part of an expected overhaul of emergency dispatch software across the county. After years of delays and disputes, the project called New World is scheduled to go live Oct. 27.

If that happens, dispatchers, police and firefighters will be able to see emergency vehicles moving live across the maps on their computer screens.

The current system, which is text-based, is used to help dispatch fire vehicles according to their home fire station. With GPS, rigs can be deployed based on their precise location at that moment.

“It has an awareness of where an incident is and where the closest resource is and it can select the closest unit based on that criteria,” said Kurt Mills, executive director at SNOPAC, the dispatch center in Everett. Much of the country already has similar technology in place.

Lynnwood’s Cmdr. Jim Nelson cited the example of a police dog tracking a suspect. The new technology should allow arriving officers to see where others are stationed and change their position to better cordon off the area.

“It should be a nice new addition to our toolbox,” Nelson said.

GPS tracking could shave minutes off responses, Marysville Deputy Fire Chief Darryl Neuhoff said. Marysville expects to have roughly 17 rigs equipped. The Everett Fire Department already has its GPS units installed.

SNOCOM, which serves much of southwest county, expects to have GPS tracking on more than 180 vehicles, information services manager Terry Peterson said.

Yet using GPS for public safety means generating and storing data. A SNOPAC memo points out the data could be useful after officer-involved crashes, and “to prove or disprove allegations.” The technology was designed for operations, not surveillance.

“We’re not going to stare at the map and make sure (police are) not speeding,” Mills said.

Rules guiding the devices, and access to the data, will vary by agency. Each department must negotiate the matter with its union, Mills said.

Those talks are expected in the coming months at agencies around the county, including the Everett Police Department. The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office will discuss any related policies after New World launches.

At the Marysville Fire District, the administration agreed not to use the GPS data to initiate investigations or as the sole basis for discipline. However, the data can be used to resolve complaints and for criminal investigations.

The Mill Creek Police Department’s labor contract already accounts for GPS, officer Ian Durkee said. The contract says the data can’t be used to generate an investigation but can be collected as evidence in misconduct cases.

The Monroe fire district has been focused on the benefits of the devices, Assistant Fire Chief Steve Guptill said. The new system should be able to more readily dispatch rigs based on special equipment needs, such as a water pump, he said.

His department agreed with its union that the data could be used for accident investigations. Using the same information for discipline decisions would be subject to negotiation.

“Some agreements are stricter than others,” Guptill said. “Some basically say the only thing you can use the GPS information for is dispatching. There are some that leave the door open.”

The public records piece is being worked out for the entire New World database, which will capture GPS data along with incident reports.

The dispatch centers — SNOPAC in Everett and SNOCOM in Mountlake Terrace — will house the records, yet individual departments also have ownership. They hope to get access questions resolved before the launch, SNOCOM Executive Director Debbie Grady said.

That launch depends on New World software, which failed tests in April and May simulating a large-scale incident. Since then, SNOPAC and SNOCOM have conducted “a battery of load tests,” according to an internal memo sent to project leaders on Thursday.

Those tests have been successful, without any of the delays reported earlier. “We are satisfied with the results,” the memo says.

SNOPAC and SNOCOM serve nearly every police and fire agency in the county. The Bothell and Tulalip police departments and the Washington State Patrol have their own dispatch centers.

Bothell doesn’t have the GPS technology now, but it may happen eventually, Sgt. Ken Seuberlich said. “It’s not on our horizon yet,” he said.

Cars used by State Patrol troopers already are equipped with GPS trackers, spokeswoman Maggie Booker said. However, the agency’s dispatch centers — including one in Marysville — don’t track rigs around-the-clock. Instead, the devices can be pinged in an emergency.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449;

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